Sunday, October 1, 2023


By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations about the absurdities of contemporary life

I was a teenage air-traffic controller.

"The universe is not complicated, There’s just a lot of it."--Physicist Richard Feynman

jimjustsaying’s Fortune Cookie Message of the Month (courtesy of Huan Xi, Milwaukee): “You are the center of every group’s attention.”  (How DID THEY know??? Incredible!)

Brands of beer that were once sold in the United States: Bull Frog, Purple Cow, Kool Mule, King Turkey, Happy Hops, Quittin' Time, Old Cars and Gorilla.  ("Hey, bro, while you're up, get me another can a that Quittin' Time, will ya?")

The Law of Unintended Consequences will never be repealed.

It has come to this:  Headline: “Users rate which stores are easiest to steal from.”

Where is the odious intel coming from?  That social media abomination called TikTok, where Walmart, Walgreens and The Dollar Tree were ranked the easiest.  (The end of the world as we knew it!)

Re the problem of finding public bathrooms—a problem that is universal and increasing--several business owners have come forth with reasons for not having facilities open to the public:

Says one: “I own a retail store, and at one time my bathrooms were open to the public. This was until my bathrooms were being used for drug deals and injections. With people marching in and out of the store to use, buy or sell drugs, I had to shut down the parade.”

Says another: “While I am sympathetic to the people with conditions that make for urgent trips to the bathroom, I am a huge NO on forcing businesses to open their employee-only restroom to a customer. The employee bathroom is usually in a backroom area where there is stock not yet tagged with antitheft devices, employee shelves, lockers, coat racks, etc. And there is the ever-present danger the customer will make a horrific mess and not clean it up. Hard NO.”

Good points all, but one wonders what these store owners do when they are on the other side of the fence? 

"If you're the smartest person in the room, find another room."--Michael Dell,

For baseball fans only:

What do Pat Borders, Marquis Grissom, Adam Kennedy, Mike Devereaux, Sterling Hitchcock, Mike Lowell, Eddie Perez, Cody Ross and Jeff Suppan have in common?

Answer: All of these not-exactly-household-name players were postseason MVPs sometime during the last 20 years.   (And some of baseball’s biggest stars—Barry Bonds being the most recent—have been abysmal playoff flops.)

Baseball pregame shows (and there ARE 162 games, compared to pro football’s 18!) are a colossal waste of time, repetitive time-fillers.  The only people who watch them are the people who tuned in thinking the game was starting.

"Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for too many players on the field?"--Jim Bouton, author of the baseball classic “Ball Four.”

I'm not saying I'm a mediocre poker player, but let's just say nobody ever called me Amarillo Jim!

I see where Alaska has been named the No. 1 most sexually diseased state in the country, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and several other states.  (Alaska may be "America's Last Frontier" but at least they now have a “first” to its credit.  Congrats!)

At least the residents still get their annual dividend from the state's co-called Permanent Fund--in 2022 a record $3,284 (after a paltry $1,114 in 2021).

But "Alaska, The State That Has to Bribe People to Live There," won't fit on a license plate.  More's the pity.  (True, $3,284 sounds like a lot, but ask any of the 50th state’s residents if that comes close to offsetting the sky-high prices of groceries and other goods that residents pay due to the much higher transportation costs of said goods. So the “dividend” is just (partial?) reimbursement for their cost of living. And the ice fog.

“To the world, you may be just one person. But to one person, you may be the world.”—Brandt Snyder

jimjustsaying's Word That Doesn't Exist But Should of the month: “Kawashocki.”  n. The feeling experienced when pulling into a parking space between two cars and suddenly realizing there is a motorcycle already parked there.—“Sniglets,” Rich Hall and Friends

The Friendly But Not-So-Safe Skies?

Nearly 5,000 pilots are suspected of hiding major health issues.

Federal authorities have been investigating the pilots, who are suspected of falsifying medical records to conceal problems that could make them unfit to fly.

Most of the pilots under investigation are still flying. And about 600 of them are licensed to fly for passenger airlines, according to one U.S. official.

An idiom in the English language that has never made sense to me: “Under the weather,” as in, “Joe couldn’t make it today; he’s under the weather.”  So when Joe is well and shows up, is he “over the weather. Even with the weather”?  (A silly euphemism! Just say he is sick or not feeling well and leave the meteorology out of it!)

And in my continuing uphill battle against imprecise speech there is this:  People will enumerate examples of whatever subject they’re discussing, or whatever has gone wrong, or what idiocies they have observed, and end by saying, “The list goes on and on and on.”

Whenever you hear that, you can bet your bottom dollar that they have in fact exhausted said list and probably couldn’t come up with another example of their “endless list” if their life depended on it.  (Another example of a flawed figure of speech or verbal tic that took hold and won’t let go.)

Oxymoronic America: "Genuine vinyl," "authentic replica" and "nonstop flight."  (Hey, I want to get off at some point! You mean the nonstop to New York doesn't stop in New York?)

Sign on door of a Target store: “Only service animals permitted." What it should say: "Guide Dogs permitted; no other animals allowed." That would take us humans out of the trespasser category.  (Say what you want about Wal-Mart, but I haven't seen a sign that idiotic on any of its doors.)

Redundancy Patrol: "Enter in," "pick and choose," "natural instinct."

jimjustsaying’s Fall Foliage Report (as a public service to you, my devoted readers): Turns out there’s a new wrinkle: The forecast for the brightest hues is getting trickier. Climate change affects when leaves change--and how colorful they get, Axios reports.

DRUDGING AROUND: Why bearded men are more attractive, according to science . . . Florida school vouchers can pay for TVs, kayaks, theme parks . . . Colorado family trying to live off grid died of malnutrition, hypothermia . . .  Montana town faces homeless problem similar to SF and LA . . . STUDY: Opposites don’t attract; couples likely to be more similar than different . . . Health effects of weed laid bare . . . A baby’s brown eyes turned bright blue after antiviral treatment . . . People rely on laxatives so much there aren’t enough to go around . . . Atheist says he died and returned and now believes in God . . . School faces backlash after hiring drag queen as principal . . . Adults ordering from kids’ menu to save money . . . TRAVEL HELL:  Couple seated next to farting dog that drooled on their legs . . . Shoplifting battle getting dangerous for workers. (Thanks to Matt Drudge and Co.)

People Mr. Popcorn is doing his best to avoid these days:

--People who pretend the shopping-cart corral doesn’t exist.

--People who wear sweatpants/sweatsuits (glorified pajamas) and shower clogs in public (and even to church).  Ditto sports team regalia.

--People who either don’t signal their turns or signal them halfway through the turn you already know they are making.

--People who answer cell phones . . . where they absolutely shouldn’t. 

--People who leave their fast-food garbage on the tables, usually forcing the next person who wants to use said table to do it for them.

--People who decide not to buy those pork chops they had put in their cart and abandon them on a shelf next to the canned goods or dish detergent. 

Ah, Madison Avenue, that bastion of annoying, bizarre and downright distorted advertising. Viewing commercials today would have you think that interracial couplings (white-black, primarily) are now the rule in America . . . although U.S. Census Bureau statistics list them as 11.9 percent.  (So how are we supposed to believe flowery product claims when they’re painting downright inaccurate pictures of America right and left?)

He said it: “Whatever you do, always give 100 percent.  Unless you’re giving blood.”—Bill Murray

She said it: “News is what somebody wants suppressed.  Everything else is advertising.”—Katherine Graham

I see where Vladimir Putin rolled out the red carpet for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un.  Gala state dinner, no doubt.

EntrĂ©e?  Filet of Doberman?  Casserole a la Canine? German Shepherd’s Pie? Make the guy feel right at home! (Remember, I don’t always agree with everything I say!)

jimjustsaying’s Newspaper Obituary Headline Nickname of the Month: “Shrimp.” As in, Helen “Shrimp” Panetti Stout, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 18, 2023.  R.I.P., “Shrimp.”

 A study of rat brains revealed how play can improve mental health.

The study: Researchers identified groups of cells in a part of the brain involved in instinctive behaviors, like pain perception and defense, that lit up while the rats were being tickled.

What it means: The urge to play is deeply ingrained in the brain. And understanding its neurological basis could help develop new therapies for troubled children.

I understand that there is a new cut-rate insurance firm in the marketplace:  Mutual of Mukwonago.

Another in jimjustsaying's series of Media Words:  Words you see or hear only in print or on news broadcasts and never hear anyone use in real life:  "hustings."  (As in, "The candidates have once again taken to the hustings for another round of campaign speeches.")

“He was identified through polite photographs.”—San Francisco Chronicle, via “Still More Press Boners,” by Earle Tempel.

jimjustsaying’s Stupid Actual Product Package Blurb of the Month: On a bag of Doritos: "You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside."

“Women aren't embarrassed when they buy men's pajamas, but a man buying a nightgown acts as though he were dealing with a dope peddler.”—Jimmy Cannon

I think I could stand it if I never ever heard another commercial touting Free Credit Report Dot Com.

Today’s Latin Lesson: Populus qui nos ad annos 70 laborare volunt, iidem sunt qui nos post annos 50 non conducunt. (“The people who want us to work to age 70 are the same people who won’t hire us after age 50.”)

Thanks to Simon Saesz, this month’s Popcorn intern.



Ego death: End or new beginning? 

Imagine that all you know yourself to be and all that others perceive in you—your personality, attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms—just disappears. These attributes slip off like a robe, leaving you psychologically naked before the universe. This existential nakedness is what theologians call a state of “pure being” or “the ground of your being.” Theoretically, it’s what’s left when your mental onion has been peeled down to its primal core. 

To most, the idea of ego dissolution, of losing one’s sense of self isa fearful prospect, if not a terrifying one. But among some mystics, this is an aspirational state, one in which they seek to shed their social identities and enter the realm of unified consciousness, of oneness with all. Consequently, many of them believe that when we die, the persona called “me” (which encompasses your personality2/and identity) just vanishes. If that’s true, then what, if anything, is left? 

Well, some mystics claim that once the ego is gone, there is no mental observer left in one’s psyche. You are no longer a splintered self, with one part (the one who thinks and judges) observing and critiquing the other (the one who feels and experiences). What remains, they assert, is a profound sense of oneness in which you no longer feel like a separate individual. One’s consciousness merges with an all-encompassing unity. Some call it ego death. We get a teensy taste of this when we totally lose ourselves in some engaging activity, like reading a book, listening to music, watching a film or any other “in the flow” experience. Self-awareness ebbs but does not entirely disappear. In a more intense way, episodes of awe and wonder, which often arise when in nature, offer more powerful doorways to this feeling of transcendence. We connect and merge with something greater than ourselves, leaving little or no room -absorption. 

The end of me?

Now, many mystics believe that to truly know God, whatever you hold that to be, your ego must get out of the way. This is a different route to the divine than some religions propose, particularly those that believe we retain our sense of self (personality) beyond death. So, assuming for a moment that death is the end of “me,” who or what is left to experience this timeless state of spiritual oneness that mystics say remains? Good question. 

“At the core, we are pure consciousness, which death cannot destroy,” one of them told me. 

His assertion can’t be proven, of course, and there are many who believe that once the brain dies, so does any semblance of consciousness. Nonetheless, science does know that we humans are energy in a material form. Physicists also tell us that energy cannot be destroyed, but only transformed. There’s little disagreement that death is transformational. The debate arises over what that metamorphosis yields. Do you remain a “me” on the other side of death’s door, does your personal identity dissolve into a greater whole, like a raindrop falling into the sea, or is it simply lights out altogether? 

Obviously, nobody knows, but if the ego is a transient mental persona that dissolves at death, as many mystics contend, then each of us would do well to whittle ours down to size while still in this world. Through spiritual practices such as meditation and prayer, acts of kindness and service to others, as well the pursuit of transcendental states of consciousness and experiences of awe and wonder in nature, we can learn to identify less with the ego and more with that state of pure being that the mystics seek. 

“Do I end at death?” many of us wonder. 

The answer may depend on whether your “I” mostly represents your ego or, instead, largely reflects your soul.

--Philip Chard, Out of My Mind

Gen Z’s nonchalance infects the workplace

When it comes to the job market, Gen Z doesn't seem to care all that much. At least that's how some managers and employers feel corralling a generation of workers they believe (erroneously or not) is entitled, lazy and full of pushback. How are "zoomers" affecting the workplace?

What complaints do people have about working with Gen Z? 

In a survey, researchers found that "of 1,300 managers, three out of four agree that Gen Z is harder to work with than other generations — so much so that 65% of employers said they have to fire them more often," Rikki Schlott wrote for the New York Post, adding that 21% of managers also believe "entitlement is an issue" with new Gen Z hires. Peter, a hospitality manager based in New Jersey, told the outlet that he feels "kind of hamstrung on what [he] can and can't say," adding that he "doesn't want to offend" anyone and always worries that he'll "get freaking canceled."s most controversial moments

How does Gen Z feel?

Zoomers are making it very clear that their sole purpose in the workplace is to get in, do the job, and get out. Rather than forming emotional attachments to their roles, they prioritize a work-life balance over everything. Perhaps because Gen Z and even millennials are the only generations to have experienced the combined trauma of the debt crisis, gun violence, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic, losing a job sounds almost like a vacation. "It's not necessarily that different generations hold different attitudes about work," Sarah Damaske, an associate professor at Penn State University, told Vox. "For millennials and for some members of Gen Z, they've witnessed two recessions, back-to-back. This is a very different labor market experience than what their parents and grandparents encountered."

So are they slackers?

"Young workers are not lazy, entitled or keen on slacking off," Kim Kelly argued for Insider: "They're simply choosing to reject some of the practices that previous generations were forced to accept." Not to mention they might also find themselves working under managers that "are so burnt out they have little time to spend training the next generation, or even noticing what their workplace experience is like," Melissa Swift, a partner at the consulting company Mercer, told Financial Times' Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. In other words, Edgecliffe-Johnson summarized, "you can't pin this all on Gen Z."

But while "quiet quitting" and detachment may seem enticing initially, younger workers would do well to remember that the world is constantly growing and evolving. In "slacking off" now, they run the risk of ruining their chances for a job down the line, Allison Schrager, an opinion columnist, wrote for Bloomberg. "Careers are long and so are institutional memories," Schrager said. "The pandemic aftermath may have given workers more power for now, but young staffers with decades of employment ahead should be thinking about what happens when that inevitably changes."

Is Generation Alpha any different?

Generation Alpha, which includes people born in 2010 and after, "will perpetuate our workplace burnout crisis" as a "side effect" of their ambition to "make work and societal change," said a 2020 LinkedIn analysis from Dan Schawbel, a managing partner at research agency Workplace Intelligence. Despite these intense efforts, which will "increase productivity temporarily at the cost of their mental health and long-term value contribution," Alphas "will demand even more from their employers than Gen Z's and millennials," Schawbel said. "They simply won't work for a company that doesn't align with their values and that isn't producing a product that benefits society."

Work and life will be "completely integrated" by the time Alphas enter the job market, where they will choose to work for less at a flexible job that supports their "emotional, physical and mental well-being" rather than deplete their tank for higher pay somewhere else. They will also "shatter old work norms and recreate the workplace based on how they interact in their personal lives," Schawbel concluded.

--Kelsee Majette, The Week

Why won't corporate America answer the phone?

When I recently called an MRI facility about an overcharge, a prerecorded voice told me, over and over again for 45 minutes, that call volume was “unusually high” and, by the way, the weather was compounding a labor shortage.

On another recent day, I needed to resolve a problem with a company with no listed phone number at all — which is how I found myself furiously pounding the keyboard in conversation with, yes, a chatbot at a vegan meal delivery service.

It shouldn’t be this hard to speak to a human. But, increasingly, companies large and small are making it difficult to access a real, live person when help is needed. Contact numbers are hard to find. Wait times to speak to an operator are long — one industry analyst estimated the average wait tripled from 2020 to 2022 and says he believes they still are a third worse than before the pandemic. Some phone lines are seemingly staffed entirely by robots, forcing you to go through menu after menu in quest of a live, real person. Or, increasingly, companies don’t offer a telephone option at all.

This is not simply inconvenient. It’s contemptuous. And consumers pay the price in emotional aggravation, in precious time and in literal money, as people give up on legitimate financial claims because they are unable to surmount the barriers in their way.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Abraham Seidmann, a professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “It’s a major abdication of corporate responsibility.”

Companies say they are reducing options for human contact by popular demand. They claim customers often prefer a virtual option — so said Frontier Airlines after it recently ceased offering customers access to live phone agents, directing them to text, chatbot or email instead. But as the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, Frontier is simultaneously telling its investors that call centers are “expensive,” while use of chatbots eliminates the customer’s ability to negotiate.

There are nods to surveys showing millennials and Gen Z’ers prefer online contact. (Little wonder, since they’re naturally phone-shy, but it’s worth noting that they have also come of age in a world of dreadful phone service.) Employers also say that in the post-pandemic world, they can’t hire enough help.

All of this is, for the most part, excuse-making. If there are humans clamoring to end customer contact, it’s the ones in the c-suite, where the suits are happy to save a few pennies on call services at your expense.

“I don’t want to put nefarious intent in people’s mouths, but I’m positive that a lot of these companies looked at it and went, ‘Hey, our service levels went down [during the pandemic], and we didn’t lose customers over it, so let’s keep them a little lower. Let’s see how hard we can make this before they start pushing back,’” says Jeff Gallino, the chief technical officer at CallMiner, an analytics firm.

A survey by OnePoll in 2021 found that more than two-thirds of respondents ranked speaking to a human representative as one of their preferred methods of interacting with a company, while 55 percent identified the ability to reach a human as the most important attribute a customer service department can possess. “When people are anxious or have problems, they really, really want to talk,” says Michelle Shell, a visiting assistant professor also at the Questrom school. “You need human contact.”

As for the claim they can’t find willing employees? Yes, turnover is traditionally high in the call center industry, and even higher in the wake of the Great Resignation. On the other hand, given that call centers are located around the globe, that’s quite the worker shortage.

What’s really going on here is a question of power. Increasingly, leverage belongs not to the customer paying the bills but to the company offering the needed service — sometimes one for which there is no competition. Foisting the work onto the consumer is a bet that the customer has no other options or won’t choose to exercise them. And often, that bet is a good one.

None of this to say is that it’s always necessary to speak to a human. It’s easy enough to make a restaurant reservation online. But we need a human touch when things go wrong. We want help, not to spend hours looking for a useful phone number for Facebook (in case you were wondering, it doesn’t exist) or navigating endless phone trees.

There are some models for better regulation. In 2018, for example, California passed legislation mandating that chatbots disclose when there isn’t a human on the other side of the conversation. But there is no pending legislation in Congress that demands companies offer a human point of contact.

The difficulty of reaching humans for customer support is an imposition on both our time and our finances, forcing us to spend what can be hours of labor — sometimes known as shadow work or a time tax — to resolve what should be simple problems. It’s one factor contributing to the sense that we as American consumers are fighting our battles alone, as so much prey for Big Business. And it’s not so unreasonable to say we deserve better than that.

--Helaine Olen, Washington Post

55th High School Reunion Essay

From Red Devils to Gray Devils (or, 73 is the new 61)

By Jim Szantor

It has been a long and winding road that brings the Class of '61 to Reunion Weekend.   A time when we can take our noses out of our devices and communicate the best possible way--face to face.  We've come so far and seen so much, but on this occasion it's all about something that we can never get enough of--living in the moment with people who matter to us.  Some of us may say more to each other this weekend than we did when we were in the same building on a daily basis.  Reunions can be strange that way.

We've gone our separate ways in many ways, but there are bonds that can never be separated, and Mary D. Bradford was a big part of that.  Some of the connections we treasure started before that, some came after.  But we're so fortunate to have them.  There's no app for that.

Our birth dates and graduation dates were bookended by two presidents known mainly by their initials (FDR and JFK), with some of us then sent off to an unpopular war by LBJ.  (OMG!)  Somehow we survived anti-war and race riots, three high-profile assassinations and thought we were living in turbulent times then.  Little did we know.

We've reached the time of our lives when, as is often said, it seems as if we're having breakfast every 20 minutes and a doctor's appointment every 20 days.   And if our waistlines have expanded, so have our vocabularies.  Unfortunately, many of our new  words end in "itis," "oscopy" or "ectomy" (with a few "ograms" thrown in for good measure.)  Some of us are lucky enough to have original factory equipment, but others seem to be doing just fine with replacement parts.  Our mileage may vary accordingly.

Our lives since high school have had similar arcs (higher education, marriage and careers, exhilarating highs and devastating lows, medical battles won and lost), but no two narratives are alike, with their surprising and fortuitous twists, unexpected and unfortunate turns.  We'll talk about them, tell stories--funny and otherwise--we may have told before.  But underneath it all is something strangely and poignantly wistful that is easier to experience than to explain.  A tear or two may flow, but laughter will carry the day.  To borrow a title from my favorite song of those cherished Bradford years, "It's All in the Game."

We'll reminisce about the sweet used-to-be, a time when you could get on a plane without getting undressed, when mosquitoes were occasional nuisances instead of winged assassins, and a Christmas gift might be one of those wildly irresponsible vintage toys of our youth--the chemistry set--the better to conduct home experiments with the ammonium nitrate now prized by rogue terrorists.

Our first cars are quaint relics now (it's cringe-inducing to contemplate how crude and dangerous they really were), but how treasured they were then!  Apples were something we ate; Steve Jobs was just 6 years old on our Graduation Day and hadn't decided to change the world just yet.  Amazon was a river in South America, a tweet was a sound produced by a bird, and Google was the name of a comic-strip character whose first name, if you don't remember it, can be learned if you use his last name to find it, using a device probably within arm's reach.

Culturally, a maverick from Mississippi named Elvis Presley was viewed as outrageous by some as the fabled Generation Gap reared its head, writ large.  No one envisioned such outre performers as Alice Cooper, Madonna and Sid Vicious and others of inexplicable popularity.  Thus, rap and hip-hop aren't likely to be heard at the Chateau on our special night; Snoop Dogg won't be making the playlist.  We'll hear many oldies and savor the memories they conjure up as the sound track of our youth plays on.

We'll survey the years and laugh about the clothes we wore, the "what were we thinking?" misadventures and the gasoline we burned going around in circles downtown.   We took ourselves perhaps too seriously at times but at least took no "selfies."  (And what about that sheepskin we worked so hard to get?  All we got was a piece of paper!   I, for one, still feel cheated and have thus given my graduation an Incomplete.  But that's just me.)

Our graduates include at least two doctors that I know of, perhaps a lawyer or three, but most likely no Indian chiefs.  Scanning the yearbook, some wonderful names pop out--a Jane Eyre and a Thomas Wolfe, whom I dearly hope can come home again.   The Annex may be gone but still stands tall in our memories.  It rained on our scheduled Graduation Day, a happenstance that turned out to be more of a innocuous oddity than an ill omen.

We'll share some of our epic Kodak moments, those occasions when someone was bound to say, "Great Grandma is probably looking down on us with a big proud smile."  (To explore the thought of other moments when Great Grandma was looking down on us is a thought too unsettling to pursue further in this essay, if you get my drift.  Who raises and lowers the celestial curtain?)

Those of us who have moved away can use this occasion to revisit old haunts (the ones that still exist) and scan the crowd for familiar faces (thank God for name tags) and lament the absence of those we fear we may never see again, trying to remember that, as a poet once said, people die but love doesn't have to.  The list of Missing Classmates numbers about 280 and leads one to wonder where those people are, and, if still living, why they have stayed in the shadows.  If by choice, we have to respect that; if for darker reasons, that's most unfortunate.  We may know the circumstances for a few, but for the others--whether they were good friends, casual acquaintances or names we hardly recognize--like a lot of life's mysteries, we may never know.  We can only hope that life has dealt them the best possible hand.

It has been said that the 25th is the best reunion--some liken it to life's mid-term exam--and say they only get sadder after that.  But most marathoners--those lucky enough to remain in the race--feel more exhilaration in the home stretch than they did at the halfway mark.  Granted, we know the trip is not going to last forever, but it's satisfying to toast the milestones we've achieved and humbly acknowledge our good fortune.  And who knows--the way research is advancing on the scourges of cancer and Alzheimer's, in five years 78 may be the new 61.  Let's drink to that!